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Overheard on the Message Boards: What Can I Do Now? The Search for Matilda Jackson
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

October 3, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am trying to find information for a Matilda JACKSON. I don't know when or where she was born or married. She would have to have been born in the late 1700s and she had a son born 1814 in Hawkins County, Tennessee. I know that Matilda Jackson m. Hopkins LEE (2nd wife), b.1770 in Johnston County, N.C. Their son Jackson LEE was b.18 Dec.1814 in Hawkins County, Tennessee. I've tried all the Jackson forums, mailing lists, North Carolina and Tennessee archives and have written for information with no results. Matilda died in Butler Co. AL. about 1850. Death certificates were not issued that early and her grave has never been found. Have just about decided someone years ago just made up the name Matilda. Can you help? Thanks! -- Rubye

A: There are times when we cannot find an individual and we are convinced they were either dropped off by aliens or conjured out of thin air. Unfortunately your Matilda falls into a time period where records are sometimes sketchy and lacking in details.

You have some clues that you can pursue though. You will find that a lot of your research at this point will actually require that you look into the lives of Hopkins Lee and the son Jackson Lee. You will also need to investigate the potential for additional siblings to Jackson and research them as well.

Researching others may holds clues to the one you were really looking for.

Cluster Genealogy — What Is It?

Cluster genealogy is a term that is not used very often because people are not practicing it as much as they used to. Cluster genealogy is the practice of branching out beyond your ancestor to research those individuals and families that were are connected to your individual. These connections may be as tight as a marriage or as loose as a witness on a land deed.

Cluster genealogy is the type of research that someone does when they are compiling a family history detailing all the descendants of a given couple. This differs from what most of us are doing with our research, which is to search for the ancestors following the links from one direct ancestor to another. If we happen to discover information about the siblings of our direct ancestor, great. If not, we don't stop long enough to worry about it.

I know that our busy lives and the Internet have played major rolls in this approach. We are so busy with work and our living family members that we often must cut corners in the researching of our deceased family. We try to accomplish so much with the little time we have to devote to this hobby. After all, the living family members seldom understand the obsession and have little patience as we try to convince them that we must visit another cemetery or we have to spend Saturday in the library.

Cluster genealogy, however, is very important to the success of our genealogical endeavors. It is often by researching others that we find the clues we need for the ancestor we are really interested in. For instance the place of birth for a mother may be found on only one of the children's death certificates, and invariably it is not that of our direct ancestor. Cluster genealogy requires us to really get to know the family and the families of those who marry into our ancestor's family.

How Cluster Genealogy Works

In order to work with cluster genealogy, you must think beyond the direct lineage. It is important to know the names of all the siblings of your ancestor. In the case of a parent for whom you cannot find anything, then it is the siblings of the child who is your direct link. You then must find all records that may have been created for those individuals throughout their life.

As an example, I was searching for the parents of my Lucinda Wheeler. I suspected that they were Ezrin Wheeler, whose wife was Rachel. I did not know Rachel's maiden name, and the records I had been able to find on Lucinda were not giving me any clues to support my hypothesis about this link from Lucinda to Ezrin and Rachel.

In locating the obituary for Lucinda I discovered that she had one brother still living. In turning to research the brother, I discovered his death certificate. This not only gave me the names of his father, but also the full name including the maiden name of his mother. I would not have found this information, though, if I had not taken the time to research the life of Lucinda's brother.

When working with the cluster genealogy method, you will want to find every record and published instance of each person. You will want to check for your ancestor and his or her siblings in the following types of records

  • Vital records (though these are not always available depending on the dates of the events)
  • Church records
  • Land records
  • Probate records
  • Published family histories
  • Biographical sources
  • Obituaries
  • Genealogical newsletters

Of course knowing if someone is going to be listed in something like a published family history means knowing who the siblings married. So often I have discovered information about the parents in this obscure route of reading about the family history of the spouse of a sibling; a search that most people toss of as useless or a waste of time.

Applying Cluster Genealogy to Your Research

My advice is based on what you shared and it is possible that you know more than you stated. In fact, you might know more and just not realize it. The first thing you will want to do is to create a timeline for both Hopkins Lee and the son, Jackson Lee. Where do you have gaps in your research? Have you exhausted all of the census records, including the Head of Household census records? Have you searched the land records for both Hopkins Lee and Jackson? Did you find any probate records for either of them? What have you done in searching for records on Hopkins Lee?

When you were searching for Hopkins Lee did you stop to search those records for Jackson families? Part of cluster genealogy is taking the individual you do know and seeing if the other surnames show up in the same places. Of course you do have an added disadvantage given that the Jackson surname is often so common. This, however, should not stop you from working with it. I have found that common names are not always common to every locality. It is possible that there may only be a few Jackson families in the counties where you have located Hopkins Lee.

You need to do something similar with Jackson Lee. You also need to try and determine if Jackson Lee was an only child or if there were additional children. Hopefully there were additional children so that you can begin to research their lives and perhaps pick up clues that have not been evident in the records you have found on Jackson. You also need to look at the records you have on Jackson and be sure that you haven't missed any of them. Have you located him in the records suggested above? Have you looked to see what Jackson families are near him? Have you located him in all the census records?

Also, depending on when Hopkins Lee died, it is possible that Matilda went to live with a daughter or son if she was left a widow. Look at where Jackson was born and where Matilda is said to have died. Can you figure out why they moved? Was it for a better life? Was it because that is where her children lived and she was left alone? These questions and others need to be asked and then you need to try to answer them.

In Conclusion

Cluster genealogy opens the possibilities of finding additional records by increasing the pool of individuals on whom you are researching. While there are no guarantees that you will discover the place of birth for Matilda, if you can find additional individuals related to Matilda you may find the elusive information that helps you to tie her to her family and answer your biggest questions. Asking and then answering what seem to be inconsequential questions will often answer the bigger more important questions.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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